There are some people who feel guilty about everything. Guilty about not calling home enough. Guilty about blowing off a friend’s b-day to stream The Bear. Guilty about eating a muffin for breakfast.
Others feel guilty for things that are out of their control, like getting pregnant easily while their best friend is on her third round of IVF.
Then there are those unicorns who feel guilt when appropriate, at appropriate levels, and for an appropriate amount of time—and then just… Let. It. Go.
This story is for the non-mythical among us (or: the first two groups). The ones who feel guilty no matter what. Or for way too long. Or for stuff that’s not even their fault.
Guilt is weird and complicated and messy. Here, experts on the emotion help us untangle it—and get you some mental relief.
Let’s start with a little lesson in how therapists actually define guilt, so we’re all on the same page. According to psychologist Kristen Casey, Psy.D, it’s the sense of having made a mistake or that you’ve done something wrong.
This feeling could spring up because you’ve behaved in a way that’s against your moral code, or because an action you took hurt someone else—whether on purpose or not. “Even if something wasn’t your intention, you could still feel guilty about it,” says Dr. Casey, co-host of the Welcome to Group Therapy podcast.
Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling, but there’s an innate reason we feel it. “Humans as a species are meant to live in a community. The function of guilt is that it motivates us to stay in alignment with the group’s norms and rules,” says psychologist Jenn Hardy, Ph.D. “For example, if a group has a goal of not hurting each other, then if we feel guilt because we hurt someone, it’s going to motivate us to change the behavior so we stay in good standing with the group.”
It makes sense: Someone who never feels guilty about harming people, physically or emotionally, is likely going to live a pretty lonely life. Friends don’t let friends keep abusing them (at least, not in healthy relationships).
“We are wired for close connection from cradle to grave. When we do something wrong that could hurt our relationships, guilt helps us to get vulnerable and tap into our empathy, especially when we want to repair the relationship and make it right,” says therapist Melissa Parks, LCSW. “Being on the receiving end of guilt serves a purpose, too, because it allows the opportunity to practice forgiveness, which is also part of connection.”
So in theory, the main purpose of guilt is it helps steer your moral compass. In actuality, it’s a lot more complicated. People can feel more or less guilt than a situation warrants, due to family upbringing, cultural expectations, mental health conditions, and other factors.
Guilt By Association
You know that list of things you can blame your parents for? If you’re a person who feels obsessively guilty over the most minor things—like berating yourself for hours after accidentally cutting someone off in traffic—add it to the list.
Ok, it’s not always your parents’ fault. But “if you grew up being blamed for things that weren’t actually your fault, you are going to have a harder time letting go of guilt [even in adulthood],” says therapist Juriana Hernandez, LMFT. The same goes if the blame was way out of proportion.
You also might have this issue with guilt if you were raised in an environment that felt out of control, explains Hernandez. This could include having a parent with an untreated mental health condition, uncontrolled anger, or a substance use disorder.
She gives the classic example of spilling a glass of milk. One parent may react by saying, That’s okay! Accidents happen. Let’s clean it up. Another parent may shout, call the child names, and berate them for ruining the tablecloth. You can see how the kid in scenario one grows up to be a human with a healthy guilt relationship. When instances like scenario number two happen on repeat, so do feelings of excessive guilt.
In situations where a lot is out of the kids’ control—such as being placed in foster care—it’s very common for these people to blame themselves and feel guilt, says Dr. Hardy. “It’s a way of feeling a sense of control,” she says. “Believing you did something ‘bad’ that caused the situation to happen means that if you are ‘good’ you can prevent it from happening.” This mindset can subconsciously carry over into adulthood.
On the flipside, going through life not feeling guilty about anything could also be connected to childhood. If a kid never experienced any consequences for poor behavior, like having to apologize, they may grow up and not feel remorse when they make a mistake or hurt someone, says Dr. Hardy.
The Mental Health-Guilt Connection
There’s no “guilt complex” listed in the DSM, the guidebook of all mental health disorders. But many disorders are accompanied by a side of guilt. How lovely! Here are a few examples…
- Depression: People with generalized depression may feel existential guilt, such as believing they are not living up to their abilities because they are isolating or feeling low, says Dr. Casey.
- Anxiety: Anxiety disorder often involves feelings of excessive guilt. People with anxiety have a tendency to fixate on past behaviors, including mistakes they’ve made, Dr. Casey explains.
- PTSD: There is a link between post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. In this case, people may feel responsible for what happened to others in a shared situation, even though they have no fault.
- OCD: And ohhhh the kinship between obsessive-compulsive disorder and excessive guilt. “One of the compulsions people may have is to feel guilty,” says Dr. Hardy. “They may [fixate on] everything they’ve done wrong and feel the need to punish themself.”
Guilt and OCD truly partner up in an OCD subtype called real event OCD. You might take the blame for a restaurant closing because of one negative Yelp review you wrote. You might still consider yourself a “bad” person because you made fun of Jenny in grade school. And say you did do something crappy, like phased out a longtime friend without any explanation. You may not win human of the year, but do you really need to reassess the sitch over and over during nightly showers 12 years later?
As The OCD & Anxiety Center puts it, “We all have said and done things that we are not proud of and that we wish we could take back… While many people can experience these reactions temporarily, or in a way that does not negatively impact them, people with Real-Event OCD experience extreme difficulty in moving on from such events.”
On the other side of the spectrum, someone with narcissism disorder does not experience guilt even if they should. Parks also points out that some people who are neurodivergent may not feel guilt because they have difficulty picking up on social cues that they’ve hurt someone.
All these factors play into how much guilt someone can feel. But it still leaves a big question: What’s a healthy level of guilt anyway?
It would be weird to go through life not feeling any guilt. But most of aren’t exactly taught when it’s okay to move on. There’s no mathematical formula that equates the size of the misdeed to the amount of time you should feel super bad about it.
Similarly, there’s no clearly defined line between a “normal” amount of guilt and an “abnormal” amount, says Aliza Shapiro, LCSW, a licensed therapist and founder of Therapy In The City. But guilt becomes excessive when it’s no longer guiding us toward correcting actions that contradict our values, she notes.
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Guilt can also be considered excessive when it doesn’t match the situation. Dr. Casey gives the example of accidentally running over a rabbit with your car. (Sad!) If you feel bad about it for an hour or two, she says, that’s reasonable. But if weeks go by and you’re still losing sleep, it’s reached out-of-proportion levels—especially since you don’t exactly have anyone to apologize to or a behavior to change; it was an honest mistake.
Your personal values play a part, too. Someone who is vegan and a big animal rights advocate will likely feel more guilt for the poor rabbit than someone who isn’t. Different people will feel different amounts of guilt for various situations—and that’s okay, says Dr. Casey.
The first step of letting go of guilt is assessing the situation: Did you harm anyone, and is there anything you can do to make the situation better? Perhaps you were that parent who yelled over spilt milk. Maybe you did cheat on your partner a decade ago. Even if you’ve made amends and they’ve forgiven you, do you deserve to be off the hook?
Guilt stops being effective when you’ve already rectified your ways yet are still holding on to it, Shapiro says. If you’ve done everything you can to repent and remedy the situation, it’s time to let that guilt go.
If you can’t tell whether the guilt you’re feeling is proportional or not, talking to a friend (or better yet, a therapist) can serve as a gut-check, says Dr. Hardy. Pick a pal who will be kind and fair, but also honest. They can help you recognize if the guilt you’re feeling is warranted. Remember: Baggage from childhood can make you feel guilty for things that aren’t actually your fault.
If this sounds like you, it may be worth unpacking with a therapist if you can, says Hernandez. Ditto if you believe your guilt is connected with a mental health condition, such as OCD or depression. And thritto (yes, we made up a word) if you have no idea why you feel guilty about things like letting yourself watch TV and relax.
Got something you botched and haven’t addressed it yet? Now is your opportunity to make it right, whether that means apologizing or modifying certain behaviors. Done everything you can but still feel guilty? Evil? Like the worst person ever? All five of the therapists we interviewed—FIVE!—say that the next step is self-forgiveness.
Yes, it’s a wellness-y word bandied about a lot, but it applies here. You can practice self-forgiveness by repeating certain mantras when feelings of guilt bubble up, says Hernandez. Things like: “I forgive myself for my past decisions and actions” and “I am capable of healing.”
While you’re going through these steps, know that it can take a while to change your guilt mindset. “Give yourself permission to go a certain amount of time without thinking about [the situation you feel guilty about],” Dr. Hardy says. “For example, allow yourself to watch a 30-minute TV show without fixating on it.”
Over time, you’ll find that it becomes easier not to obsess about it. If that doesn’t happen, take it as a sign to see a therapist. “Each person’s journey is unique, and some might benefit from professional help, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to challenge guilt-inducing thought patterns and develop healthier coping mechanisms,” Shapiro says.
If you’re struggling to bye-Felicia your guilt but therapy isn’t accessible for you, Dr. Hardy suggests reading books on the topic. Some to consider are Radical Self-Forgiveness, The Self-Forgiveness Handbook, and How To Forgive Ourselves Totally.
Guilt is a complicated, uncomfortable emotion. Sometimes it’s warranted; sometimes it isn’t. Excessive guilt can eat you up inside. Remember to be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that feeling guilty about feeling guilty is a loop that rarely serves.